most common objection I encounter when debating or trying to explain
my views to others is the charge that I am an idealist. This word
is commonly used to describe someone who advocates utopian daydreams,
but like all words it can be made to mean exactly what we intend
it to mean. It can be used in a well-defined manner to describe
a certain mindset or group of ideas. It is also a very convenient
term that can be used to sidestep the merits of an argument rather
than addressing them directly.
What is an
idealist? What does it mean to say that something is ideal? In Merriam
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary there are two main definitions
of the word ideal. 1) Existing as a mental image or in fancy or
imagination only; lacking practicality. 2) A standard of perfection,
beauty or excellence; often taken as a model for imitation; or an
ultimate object or aim of endeavor.
In my experience
the word idealist is most commonly used to coincide with the first
definition. It is an insult aimed at denigrating people and their
beliefs. It is associated with youth, ignorance, fantasy, gullibility,
radicalism and an unwillingness to see the world as it "really
is." Its opposite is practicality, common sense, or realism.
This usage of the word can be very misleading. I fear we are far
too prone to enlarge the first meaning at the expense of the second.
For this reason I would assert that although the first definition
is commonly understood, it is inaccurate.
cannot possibly be put into practice, if it only exists in some
fanciful fairyland, or if it defies the nature of our existence
then it is not ideal. Yes, that's what the first definition claims
to describe, but if we use it that way we will inevitably become
confused. The line between the impossible dream of the first definition
and the difficult-to-achieve standard of perfection of the second
will become blurred. The second definition is both more useful and
of a world where there is no sadness, no want, no adversity or where
human nature is somehow changed to be something other than it is
are not only impossible, they are undesirable. Unpleasant experiences
are an integral part of human life. If there were no pain, no sadness,
no hunger and no desire, where would be the pleasure, the happiness,
the satisfaction and the joy of achievement? If we were deprived
of one side of the coin we could not know or appreciate the other.
To completely eradicate life's unpleasantry would severely retard
human learning and development and rob life of its meaning.
creeds and dogmas which may seem desirable and possible, but which
require the use of means that are contradictory to the ends they
profess are not ideal. If civilization is to survive and progress,
the means used are just as important as the desired ends. It is
the means that tell us where we are headed. Just ask any one of
the 100 million victims of world communism if the ends justified
the means. Or maybe we could ask Madeleine Albright if half a million
dead Iraqi children is an acceptable price for regime change. "By
their fruits ye shall know them," is wise counsel indeed.
In this sense,
those who we might call "idealists" in the first sense
of the word (those who advocate systems and conditions that we would
consider "Utopian") are not heroes, or do-gooders. They
may be called delusional, unrealistic, or fanciful dreamers, but
to call them idealists is a misnomer. What they advocate is not
ideal. It is dangerous. The trick is discerning between what is
really ideal in the second sense of the word and what truly is impossible
Here is where
we run into problems. Just who is to say what can and cannot be
accomplished? Where is the boundary between the unachievable and
that which is difficult to achieve? Just what is impossible? Well,
that depends on when and where we are talking about. In 1492 it
was "impossible" for Columbus to fly to the Americas.
But if we think about it, it wasn't really impossible. The method
was simply undiscovered. In the early to mid 1900's, socialism (as
embodied in the Communist movement) was widely thought to be not
only desirable and practical, but inevitable. It seems the passing
of time has a way of revealing the absurdity of what we thought
was "pragmatic" and opening our eyes to the practicality
of previously impossible endeavors.
In fact, "practicality"
is used most often as an excuse and a justification. Rationalizing
current behavior and defending the status quo is far easier than
putting forth the effort to achieve the highest standards of excellence.
New and different ideas, no matter how noble have always been dismissed
as impractical and fanciful by those who feel threatened by them.
In any system there are deeply entrenched, vested interests that
will adamantly defend their privilege and position against change.
When someone says "well, that sounds nice but it just isn't
practical," what they are usually saying is that they don't
feel that they would personally benefit from it. After all, if something
really is ideal, why would we not want to pursue it?
greatest advances in science, medicine, technology, philosophy and
civilization are mainly the result of the dreams and aspirations
of idealists. History is full of examples of brave and brilliant
men and women who have challenged the injustice, inconsistency and
narrow constraints of conventional wisdom and who defied tyrants
and oppressors. These were men and women of ideals. They were not
content to defend a flawed system when they knew something better
was attainable. They refused to limit themselves to what their contemporaries
considered "practical," but instead sought to prove the
possibility of what was commonly believed to be impossible.
This is what
we should mean when we use the term "idealist." It is
to hold in one's mind certain ideals that one believes are achievable
standards of perfection. It is to be an advocate of something better;
something more just and humane than what currently exists. It constitutes
a never-ending search for improvement. It is the relentless pursuit
of new and better ways of thinking, living, cooperating and organizing.
In short, it means to be principled, and such principles must be
grounded in a correct understanding of human nature.
It is not a
quixotic quest for some mythical bliss. An idealist does not seek
to eradicate all injustice or to create a society free of crime.
He understands that as long as men are rational beings with the
ability to choose their own actions, there will always be some degree
of cruelty and injustice. What he cannot and must not condone however,
is this same injustice becoming justified and institutionalized.
He cannot stand
idly by and advocate systems or conditions which contradict his
principles. He may tolerate them, he may live under them, but he
must work steadily to change them. He does not see the inability
or lack of desire among his fellowmen to advocate or live up to
high standards as proof of the "impracticality" of such
standards. Rather he agrees with the words of Gandhi when he said:
"A principle is a principle and in no case can it be watered
down because of our incapacity to live it in practice. We have to
strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate
before have we been more in need of people willing to advocate high
ideals and noble principles even in the face of ridicule or neglect
by those with influence and authority. What the world needs are
more champions of individual freedom, responsibility, persuasion
and cooperation in opposition to the doctrines of coercion, collectivism,
entitlement, envy and violence. We need fewer sheep who passively
accept the world as it “really is” and more free-thinking individuals
willing to see the world as it ought to be. What the world needs
are more idealists and fewer pragmatists.